"David Broder: The Senate is now working on Contract...

May 11, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"David Broder: The Senate is now working on Contract items, and they don't seem to be doing very well. Did the House just overreach, or what is the problem?

"Newt Gingrich: No, there's not a -- I don't know that there's a problem. I mean, this is about -- this is the American system. The fact is the Founding Fathers designed the House to run every two years. It is a -- somebody -- there was an analogy once that the House was a hot cup of coffee, and the Senate is the saucer that you pour it in to cool."

When I heard that exchange on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, I thought, "Somebody?" Professor of American History Gingrich doesn't know who said what is probably the best-known description of the Senate's function in our system!

I know -- everybody knows -- George Washington said it. Thomas Jefferson called Washington to account at the breakfast table for having agreed to a second chamber. "Why," asked Washington, "did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" "To cool it," quoth Jefferson. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."

I wanted to put the quote in its exact setting, so I looked into biographies of both Washington and Jefferson and found -- nothing!

I called the Senate Historical Office and asked Richard Baker when the Washington-Jefferson exchange took place.

"In 1888," he said, which explains why it wasn't recorded in biographies, Washington having died in 1799 and Jefferson in 1826.

What Dick Baker meant was that years of effort to pin down the famous but elusive quote had found nothing earlier than a book by Moncure D. Conway published in 1888. The italicized material in the earlier paragraph of this column is the way Conway imagined the scene. The Congressional Research Service says it is "probably apocryphal."

Speaker Gingrich also referred to another famous American political quotation on "Meet the Press."

Asked if he would run for president in 1996, he said, "I'm working very hard to be speaker, but it's impossible coming from Georgia to issue a Sherman-like statement."

The definitive statement of non-candidacy was issued by retired Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1884, when Republicans were trying to draft him to run for president. He wrote in pencil a message to be telegraphed to the convention: "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected."

Because a destructive General Sherman ripped Georgia in half during the Wah, Georgians are said to find it impossible to quote him. I don't believe it for a minute. In 1995, who cares? Gingrich, after all, is from Pennsylvania. He probably has an ancestor in his closet who killed a Rebel or two in 1861-1865.

So probably do many of his constituents. According to Census stats, about a third of the residents of Newt's Cobb County, Ga., were born outside the South.

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